Since they cancelled the Annapolis boat shows, the fall migration has spread out, with cruisers putting together travel itineraries not tied to show schedules. Tradition has it that cruisers head south right after the shows, but this year folks are taking their time and leaving later than normal. The forums and Facebook groups are full of couples trying to work it all out. It is especially interesting to read the questions and perspectives from couples going on their first ICW trip south. (Also read: Are You Going South On The ICW This Winter?)

For some, it is their first “real” boat, and they seemed overwhelmed by everything they don’t know, unanswered questions that lurk around every corner. Is it really okay to flush toilet paper in the head, do they have enough “rope” on the boat for all the line-handling activities they will encounter, and which are the best guidebooks to take them safely on their journey? It is a big adventure, no question, and I trust their naïve enthusiasm overcomes their anxiety and fear of the unknown. I admit to being a bit jealous at the glorious discoveries that await them. We’ve all been there, haven’t we!?!

At the end of the day, however, it is just great to be able to head south if one can manage it. Who would not prefer to bask in the sun and enjoy the warmth of the Florida Keys instead of the cold, snow, and ice of another New England winter?

It’s also pretty accurate to say that boats are better used than hauled, winterized, and stored, as stuff breaks or just stops working when it sits. I don’t know why exactly, but that is the way it is.
For this and other reasons, spending a winter south of the North Carolina border generally means warmer weather, outdoor living, and for those who have the time, enjoying life as if on one long vacation.

And trust me, it is addicting.

Preparing one’s boat for the thousand-mile trip down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is not anywhere near the ordeal of preparing for an ocean crossing. You are never out of sight of land, which is the point of the ICW. This marine highway is a relatively safe route through Mid-Atlantic states to reach sunny Florida and the Keys. The trip offers a wonderful cruising experience, if you let it be one, always something new, stopping every night to anchor in a remote creek or tie up at a town dock or marina, with local food and fuel nearby.

I offer these tips for preparing your boat for the trek south, which not surprisingly also fits anyone planning the Great Loop in 2021, or next year’s summer cruising in the Great Lakes, New England, or the Pacific Northwest. They are helpful ways to enjoy extended cruising when you want to get away and be self-sufficient…and safe. 

(Seen below: There's nothing better than waiting out the winter by socializing with friends at your marina in the Florida Keys.)

boats are marine in the florida keys

Tighten Everything That Moves

Sometimes the boat speaks to you. One morning as we cruised quietly along, enjoying the serene view of tall grasses along Georgia’s Low Country over coffee, we heard the sound of a bolt bouncing off fiberglass. It then settled onto the flybridge settee. Laurene and I exchanged glances…where did that come from? A quick inspection revealed it was from one of the Bimini fittings, so over the next half-hour I walked around the flybridge tightening all the hardware. I never thought to check them.

Performing this kind of maintenance before a trip gives you a chance to reacquaint yourself with your boat, which is helpful if you have not spent a lot of recent time aboard. Its goal is to help avoid issues during the trip by eliminating them before they surface.

Spend time going over terminal blocks and wire connections to make sure all wiring is tight and secure. A loose connection is the primary cause of failures of electrical and electronic equipment.
Go over pump connections, battery terminals, ground wires, alternator wiring, windlass and electric winch connections, and all the motors you have on the boat. You will kick yourself when you discover a faulty, bothersome windshield wiper is nothing more than someone bumped a wire bundle, and the push-on connection came loose.

Imagine vibration from running engines, pumps, or compressors. Or accidental bumps from crew moving around an engine space. As long as you can access all of the electrical connections in your boat, and make sure everything is tight at the beginning of a major trip, this is the best insurance you can provide yourself and your family. No matter if it is the trip south on the ICW, the Great Loop, or any number of longer cruises where you just want things to work. Cruising has its own set of variables that you can’t control, so deal with those you can.

And best of all, you just need a screwdriver or two, perhaps a wrench. Just you and a couple of tools.

(Seen below: Remember to tighten all of the bolts around any hatches on your boat before setting off on a cruise.) 

tighten bolts around your boat hatches

Bring Spares for All Single Points of Failure

We harped on this for years at seminars and workshops for trawler owners around the country, and it remains the best advice one can offer the would-be cruiser. Go over your boat and identify every piece of equipment that contains a single point of failure. This means any critical piece of equipment, where, if it stops working, it takes out the rest of the system. A water pump, for example. Within a week of one trip, our freshwater pump quit. The pump was the only source of pressure water on that boat. But I had a spare pump aboard and was able to remove and swap the pumps that evening.

The same goes for the fuel delivery system. Relying on just one fuel filter is asking for trouble. Any water or dirt in the fuel will eventually clog the filter and shut down the engine. That is why smart cruisers—sail and power—have switchable fuel filters so one simply turns a lever and fuel is redirected to a second, fresh filter element.

Of course, if we were preparing to go offshore this list would grow exponentially. Critical systems, such as the boat’s autopilot and hydraulic steering, would include spare motors, control boxes, or, in some cases, completely redundant systems. But along the ICW, or on the Great Loop, extensive preparations and redundancy is less critical and needn’t drain your bank account. You can have most anything fixed along our country’s waterways.

Perform a load test on your boat’s batteries and replace them if they won’t be good for the duration. When in doubt, replace them.

(Seen below: Fuel filters are an excellent spare part to have on a boat starting out on a longer cruise.)

Racor fuel filter elements 

Equip Your Boat and Crew with the Proper Tools

I highly recommend separate pairs of binoculars for each crew member, clearly labeled. It gets old sharing binoculars, constantly readjusting them for individual preferences and settings. If all crew, including children, has his/her own pair, it adds to the safety of the boat. If someone sees something in the water, for instance, others can help identify whether it is a partially submerged log or the head of a waiting gator.

Make sure you have a damn good horn (as in LOUD), as you will use it. If traveling on a faster powerboat, there will be many times you will have a situation, especially in a narrow stretch of waterway, where you approach a slower boat, sailboat or trawler, that is chugging along at five or six knots. On sailboats, especially, they are often not listening to the VHF radio down below, so your call is unheard.

And on so many trawlers and other powerboats, the owners store their dinghy vertically on the swim platform. There is no way to read to name of the vessel to hail them as you come up on them. A loud horn will get their attention, and once you make eye contact, you can use hand signals if necessary, to let them know which way you plan to pass them.

Speaking of VHF radios, I am a big fan of two VHF radios, ideally two fixed radios with a third handheld unit. In stretches of many waterways, including the ICW, you share the water with commercial traffic. Having two radios on your bridge or at your helm allows you to monitor a commercial working channel, while the second radio is tuned to Channel 16 or even a bridge channel. I have found this almost a necessity on recent trips on the ICW.

And even if you don’t plan on it, you will likely meet some nice folks along the way on another boat. As so often happens, you both might enjoy a bit of buddy boating for a portion of the trip. Having a second radio on Channel 68 or other channel gives you the ability to stay in touch as you cruise together. That adds to the entertainment value big time during the day, as you share sights and plan tonight’s dinner without switching back and forth on Channel 16. I can assure you that it is much more fun than sitting alone in the cockpit or flybridge. Especially when you pass the pink giraffe…

Measure your actual air draft. While many 65-feet bridges have replaced older low bridges, it is still a particularly good thing to know for certain what the height of your boat is, to the tippy top of the mast, antenna included. What is your height off the water when you lower all antennas and perhaps the radar arch?

(Seen below: Dual VHF radios are a necessity when I travel by boat and are too valuable.)

dual VHF radios on boat

Always Have A Second or Third Way to Navigate

I’ve never known a problem-free boat. On Growler I used a laptop running Coastal Explorer. It was fine for many years…until the motherboard failed. It was totally unexpected.

Just into our first long trip on Spitfire, we lost the flybridge Raymarine E120 chartplotter. It began to flicker then went blank. I later swapped the working unit at the lower helm with the dead plotter on the flybridge to keep us in the game. When the second Raymarine chartplotter started to blink on and off in light rain, I wondered if we might be on the verge of losing our electronic navigation.

As the Raymarine units were already considered obsolete, I asked a technician before we left what would be a good backup system. He suggested the Garmin 740S. Self-contained with an internal GPS and preloaded charts, it could do all we needed and more. So, when this E120 started flickering, we made some phone calls to find the nearest West Marine from where we were on the Waccamaw River. We arranged to stop at Osprey Point Marina, where we got a ride to the Myrtle Beach store. That evening I installed the Garmin unit, and we were good to go.

Today I would also have an iPad onboard for navigation backup, using a Bad Elf GPS Pro for its outstanding accuracy of position information, which can be shared among several devices and smartphones.

I kind of wish I headed south again this year…and the chance to meet these new cruisers. I hope they all have a wonderful ICW experience, no matter what boat they are on, and that they slow down and enjoy the journey. It is quite an adventure, and a chance to experience our country’s history and diversity.

Just get started before you have to deal with early morning’s slippery ice on your decks. You’ll only make that mistake once, I promise you.

(Seen below: Your final destination of your cruise can yield many friendships. This is a pizza party at a marina in the Keys we hosted for friends and other boaters.)

pizza party at marina in florida keys